Let me return now to the topic of my last post: Gabriel Josipovici and his talk the other night in London. Ellis Sharp mentioned in his post on it that Josipovici read aloud from three unidentified works of fiction. Says Ellis:
They were all bad writers, going through the motions, Jospivoci argued. Each extract raised questions of narrative authority. Each author displayed a complacent omniscience about their characters.Steve Mitchelmore modifies this impression in a comment to his own brief post about the talk, at This Space:
I would correct one thing: I think he said those "writers going through the motions" weren't bad at all - in fact that they were all talented etc, but that they went blithely on churning out these books untroubled by doubt.An earlier post from Steve touched on "guilty pleasures" and the "philistine drivel flow[ing] from the assumption that Great Art is a Platonic realm and good for you like a sermon, while 'guilty pleasures' are what we'd all prefer to engage in instead." Steve objected to this and then, with some weariness, wrote: "It isn't about snobbery but making the distinction between an ephemeral need and what is needed at the deepest level."
I think this distinction is not felt by many, or not understood. Usually it's perceived that if you don't read any "genre", for example, it's because you're being dismissive and elitist. And genre enthusiasts can compare much of what they read with much of what gets hailed as "literary" and often rightly not see anything special about the latter, noticing that it's just as unoriginal and formulaic as non-genre readers assume genre is. Because most of what gets published as literary fiction, and is considered for literary awards, is not particularly interesting. Even when it's good and well-written. Most of it does not meet that need felt at "the deepest level". Most of it would not induce most readers to claim it as a "guilty pleasure", yet they offer not much more than a satisfaction of "an ephemeral need" (a need, in this case, to read a smart, entertaining story). We can disagree on which books meet that deeper need (or even address it), but if we don't agree that there is a distinction to be made on this point, conversation will remain difficult.
In his post, Ellis wrote that that Josipovici mentioned two of the "very few of the modern British novelists" who wrote out of an awareness of the "bad faith" of the novel (as acknowledged by the Modernists): "William Golding, in Pincher Martin, and Muriel Spark, in The Hothouse By The East River." I've never read either of these writers. Since Golding is the author of Lord of the Flies, which often gets lumped in with books like The Catcher in the Rye (books we're supposed to read in high school), I've had a tendency to assume that I could not bother with him and not be missing much. But then I learned he'd won the Nobel Prize, which did compel me to readjust his position in my mind slightly. Now I definitely want to read Pincher Martin, at least.
Steve noted that Josipovici, to Steve's evident dismay, interestingly named John Updike as a "popular literary novelist who was aware in his or her work of the issues raised in the talk". Steve wondered whether it had been Ellis who asked the question prompting this reply. Ellis says no: "Had I been quizzing the genial Gabriel Josipovici on his attitude to modern American fiction, the gauntlets I would have thrown down would have been early Pynchon and David Foster Wallace." It pleases me that Ellis mentions David Foster Wallace in this context, because it seems to me that Wallace is misunderstood by admirers and detractors alike. He is not just "playing games"; he is not simply refusing to "incorporate" his own critical stance on irony into his fiction (of which he is routinely accused, casually and gratuitously, most recently, to my attention, here). I think he is very aware of the problems that Josipovici appears to be raising, and that in his fiction he is working through these problems seriously (see an earlier post by me on Wallace here; by the way, I think this much-discussed "stance on irony", as delineated in the above-linked interview, and in his essay "E Unibus Pluram", found in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, is also misunderstood, especially as it relates to his own fiction). What he doesn't do is "satisfy" our expectations for a certain kind of psychologically convincing, emotionally compelling story. He may, instead, address the "deeper level of need" (I think he does). I was going to say that when this deeper need is addressed there might be a different sense of satisfaction--we might be satisfied that the need is being met--but are we ever really satisfied in this sense? Do we not in part seek out such books because we remain, and must remain, unsatisfied?